Under an ombré sky on April 11, 2011, just before 8 p.m., LaShanda Armstrong drove her minivan into the dark, still-chilly waters of the Hudson River in New York. The decision to end her life—and the lives of her four small children in the car—seemed to be born more from consuming desperation than methodical malice. Less than an hour beforehand, the 25-year-old mother had posted an ominous message on Facebook, telling friends, “I'm so sorry everyone, forgive me please for what I'm gonna do…. This Is It!!!!” The sister just snapped.
Forty-five minutes later, she and her three youngest babies were dead, drowned as a family in the same vehicle they had used for everyday family activities. Her eldest, Lashaun, escaped the car through an open window and swam to safety. As the sole survivor of an intentional tragedy that forced him to fully experience the extent of his mother’s mania, the 10-year-old felt guilty. For not unbuckling his little sister from her car seat. For not saving his mom and brothers. For just being alive. The words haven’t been invented that could wholly describe the sorrow and heartbreak of the scene. It eludes expression.
That was three years ago. Three years, depending on the situation and perspective, is a lot or a little time. In this case, it’s an opportunity to honor both the children and the adult who are no longer here and reflect on the details, sans the urgency of breaking news, piecemealed bits of story and the immediate need to make sense of an incomprehensible loss. Landon, who was 5, would have been 8 this year. Lance, who was 2, would have been 5. And little Lainaina, who was just a few days shy of her first birthday when she was killed, would be looking forward to soon turning 4. God bless the souls of those babies.
Armstrong herself has been largely undermourned by those who weren’t related to or personally close to her. She was an average young woman like the rest of us, smiling in selfies with her kids and her man, going to school, building a life for herself and her family. But she is remembered in the annals of headline-making media as the “suicidal mother” or the “killer mom.” Google her name: She’s verbally crucified in many spaces as a baby murderer and vilified for being weak, selfish and unhinged.
Because we’ll never know her exact thoughts as she made her final sequence of choices, the finger-wagging judgment-passers with an opinion to wield—on social media and certainly in the comments sections of outlets covering the story—have had carte blanche to build assumptions around her actions. It’s easier than seeing the fallible humanity in her mistake.
The thing that makes us most uncomfortable is to recognize a little or more of ourselves in a person we so passionately want to make into a monster. We want to distance ourselves from the possibility of ever being that crazy or that wrong or that dangerous. In reality, a Molotov cocktail of circumstances can create a combustible situation from which no amount of pep talking or praying to Jesus may be able to bring you back.
Most of us are just fortunate never to run into it when we are at our most fragile and vulnerable. Maybe we seek professional help, maybe we have family and friends who spot the warning signs of an approaching meltdown that would go far beyond a bout of mild depression. We survive and move on, and when stories like this happen, we lose our ability to empathize because we somehow managed not to go that far.
If you know anything about post-traumatic stress disorder or just stressors facing young, black women in general, you can better understand LaShanda Armstrong’s backstory. She became a mother at 15, when she gave birth to Lashaun. Much research has been dedicated to the social and economic effects of being a teen mom, but the psychological effects are real, too. She gave up her childhood, not yet knowing who she was as a person because she was still just a kid herself. Her whole identity was defined by her premature motherhood, undoubtedly by other people and probably by herself.
Then she had another baby. And another. And another. That isn’t at all uncommon for young ladies who too soon give themselves over to becoming a parent. And in the midst of that, she was in a poor relationship with a man who had openly cheated on her and was, at one point, legally barred from being around her 2-year-old by a restraining order.
She had moved away from her family to be with him. She was also in school. She was working a full-time job. She, like many of us, struggled to make ends meet. The stressors were stacked against her, and she crumbled under the weight of them. But by nearly every account, Armstrong was an adoring parent to her children.
In the moments before she died, she reportedly hugged her children in the backseat of that minivan. Lashaun even told investigators details that lead us to believe that his mother was having second thoughts about her fateful decision.
Thousands, maybe even millions of women shoulder the angst of money problems, unfaithful partners and single-parent stresses, and we never think to do anything as drastic as LaShanda Armstrong did. But just because she did doesn’t make her a bad person. It makes her a person.
Writer and editor Janelle Harris resides in Washington, D.C., frequents Twitter and lives on Facebook.